Nietzsche and the Over-Man

(Reprint: Snow Day Lecture #2)

As some of you already know, Nietzsche is considered an influence not only on “post-structural” philosophers, like Foucault and Deleuze, but also on the movement that came to be known as existentialism that precedes post-structuralism by a couple of decades. (The most recognized face of existentialism at the time was, of course, Jean-Paul Sartre.) Deleuze, for his part, would argue that existentialism does not live up to the challenge of Nietzsche’s thought, since it presumes a transcendent subject with a power to choose this or that action. In other words, existentialism remains a philosophy of transcendence. Indeed both existentialism and phenomenology can be understood as the latest developments in a legacy that begins when Descartes utters the formula cogito ergo sum. As Todd May notes, in his explication of Deleuze’s philosophy, “It is not simply a question of how we human beings might go about creating our lives, of what we might decide to make ourselves into” (“How One Might Live” 23). This is Sartre’s question. It is still insufficient or inadequate because it prioritizes being over becoming, identity over difference. It presupposes that there is an identity, a self, who chooses their existence. Deleuze rejects the emphasis placed in Sartre on agency, on self, and, more importantly, the emphasis placed on the human. “Deleuze,” May writes, “tries to pry us away from humanism by focusing on a difference that need not be human difference and a one that need not be a person.” Humanism is to understood here as a form of anthropomorphism. Humanism commits the “error of believing that the proper perspective for understanding the world is centered on the viewpoint of the human subject” (ibid. 24). Humanism places man at the center of the universe, since man is its principle or exclusive concern. Deleuze places his emphasis on life; on the becoming of the entities that populate our world. These entities are not pre-determined; nor is their future known once and for all. To stop at the human would be to presume that the goal of life were the creation of man. (Which, of course, is what Christian theology says.) It would be a mistake to argue (and some have done so) that this “anti-humanism” is an expression of contempt for mankind. How could this be so since mankind is part of world? At the same time, we cannot fall into the trap of thinking too highly of ourselves. Since everything is becoming – everything is in process – so too is man. Man is becoming, in and with the world. This, Deleuze will claim, is what Nietzsche means when he coins the term übermensch (the “over-man” or “super-man”). We are in the process of overcoming ourselves, and there is no certainty that our evolution will not take us elsewhere, even beyond man. At least, man as it is known today.

As Deleuze says to his interviewer, in “On Nietzsche and the Image of Thought,” the goal of contemporary philosophy is to attempt to rethink the questions of existence without the constraints of either God or Man – which is to say, without the constraints of transcendent being. And the value of Nietzsche is that he “was trying to uncover something that was neither God nor Human…” which he called Dionysos or the over-man (139).


What does it mean though to say that there is no identity or self who chooses this or that existence? And how might this be squared, for example, with the thought-experiment known as the Eternal Return? (Does not the Eternal Return seem to presuppose choice?) This is where Nietzsche gets tricky. Consider here his concept of Will-to-Power, which he views as the “noblest” of values. Will-to-Power is misunderstood if we imagine an individual who exerts his or her will on another entity or thing. For Nietzsche, there is no separation between a will and what is willed. They are one and the same. There is no pre-constituted subject who wills this or that act. No, the act (what is willed) and the subject (who wills) are constituted at the same time. (The error of separating out one from the other is precisely what we find in Descartes: Descartes assumes that a thought, the act of thinking, requires a subject who performs this action. Nietzsche would deny this hierarchy or priority: the subject doesn’t precede thought but is constituted in the act of thinking.) Put more simply, we can say that the subject is immanent to its expression. The challenge then is not to fall back on a notion of substance or install an agency at the origin of an activity or an expression of Will-to-Power. The use of terms like “object” or “thing” or “entity” is an example of how language misleads us into seeing solids (autonomous, pre-constituted beings) when there are only fluidities, only relations. The artist’s relation to their artwork is a good demonstration of this: the challenge from a Nietzschean perspective is not to be misled into seeing the artwork as an expression of the artist’s will. There is not an entity we call an “artist” who decides to will a painting into existence. Rather, the activity of painting itself is the expression of a will to power that produces both the painting and painter at the same time: the painter as such emerges through the activity of painting, and not once and for all, not through the painting of this or that painting, but over the course of years or decades and in conjunction with a body of work. What then is the difference between an artist and an oeuvre? There is none in terms of Will-to-Power: they are an expression of the same force, the same will. The artist accumulates an oeuvre and, in the process, a self.



Deleuze, Gilles. “On Nietzsche and the Image of Thought.” In Desert Islands and Other Texts, 1953-1974. Ed. David Lapoujade. Trans. Michael Taormina. New York: Semiotext, 2004.

May, Todd. “How Might One Live?” In Gilles Deleuze: An Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.


2 Responses to “Nietzsche and the Over-Man”

  1. Could a painter not come into being without the body of work? What about a painter of works that are immobile, like Banksy?

  2. No matter if some one searches for his necessary
    thing, thus he/she wants to be available that in detail, thus that thing is maintained over here.

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